Why Agile is Ideal for Ensuring the Essentials are Prioritized Over Extras
"For agile projects, the product owner sets the vision and roadmap," consultant Alan Zucker says. "The vision and roadmap guide the development process."
This sounds a little mundane at first blush, but Zucker’s point speaks to something nearly revolutionary. We’re less than two decades into the age of agile workflows, and these already have proved especially adept at delivering laser-focused outcomes for customers.
“Outcomes” can mean products, project deliverables or full-on organizational changes. In any case, the elucidation of the vision early on ensures that outcome is focused and not full of bloat. Agile workflows force teams to prioritize what’s important over what’s not.
Agile Helps Develop a Vision for a Product While Anticipating Change
Not every company (or its executives) has the stomach for agile development. Having a product owner say, “Here’s where we’re going, and my team is going to figure out how we get there,” is not music to the ears of someone who’s spent a career battling budget constraints, tight deadlines and risk analyses.
But as Jackie LaRocca at Capgemini, a roadmap that is in line with the organization’s vision can weather all of those bumps in the road. The key is to build a team — we will touch on how to do this in a moment — that can respond to changes while keeping an eye on the horizon.
That vision, that eye toward the horizon “anchors the change in a certain direction and provides something that can be bought into,” Brad Stokes at the Agile Uprising Coalition writes. “Vision starts us on the road to being able to function with depth and complexity. When we can start to look at things with the filter of what we are trying to achieve, we can make positive choices that get us closer.”
In product development, these wrinkles get ironed out iteratively during scrums and huddles, when team members frame their progress toward building key features, plus any bugs they have found and any workflow issues that need work, through user stories.
This is a good time to bring up the team’s role in agile workflows, and how one empowers the other and vice versa.
That Vision Also Guides and Empowers Your Team
The beauty of agile lies in these scrums, huddles and standups. These short meetings are the foundation upon which the workflow’s accountability processes are built, and they do an excellent job of keeping everyone focused.
Product management expert Roman Pichler says these meetings open the floor to anyone on the team to share their views and their concerns. At the same time, Pichler says, the person actually in charge of the project must protect these meetings from the influence of noisy people and bad ideas (“I remember one sprint review meeting where a senior stakeholder literally shouted his demands at the product owner and dev team—which was neither appropriate nor helpful, of course,” he writes).
Even as the ideas flow, the product owner, project manager or whoever is guiding the vision can reign everyone in and keep the project focused.
The workflows at Spotify are a good example of this. As Jeanne Ross at MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research describes, Spotify’s executive team sets out a handful of big-picture priorities that different teams can own. This results in a taxonomy of missions that nest inside one another.
“At the enterprise level, a clear mission or vision statement establishes priorities for the entire organization,” Ross says. “It directs teams’ innovation efforts by clarifying the objectives of the company’s investments in resources. At the team level, mission statements define how the team will contribute to the company’s goals.”
In some cases, these clear mission statements allow teams to self-organize, Elise Veerman at Gaiku writes. Such teams, she says, are excellent at achieving sprint goals quickly, learning on the fly and staying motivated.
That said, not every organization’s employees can self-organize into such efficient units. No worries. Agile leaves plenty of room other models of team-building. Wouter Aghina, Aaron De Smet and their colleagues at McKinsey & Co. have been studying these team-building models for a while. They present two common alternatives to the self-organizing team:
the cross-functional team, which are led by a project owner or a product owner to define the vision and prioritize what work gets done,
and flow-to-the-work pools, which come together in ad-hoc fashion based on what tasks need to get done.
In each model, you can see how important it is to have a clear, defined vision. Whether the team rallies around that vision or someone has to impress it on them a little, that guiding light is necessary for keeping even the best employees focused on the essential outcomes.
Customer Collaboration Keeps That Vision Current
A key feature of agile workflows is they always keep the customer, the person or people you’re doing all this work for, at the center of everything. As a result, the things that are important to your customer remain in your field of vision, which keeps your mission on pace.
“You need to be clear on who the customer is, what problem you’re trying to solve, what matters to the customer, and prioritize,” says Hugo Sarrazin, global leader at McKinsey Digital Labs.
“... In typical organizations, the distance between the customer and the people doing the coding is eight layers of translation. That can only lead to wrong prioritization, compromise, and, in the end, your likelihood of delighting the customer and doing something that’s ‘aha’ is reduced. That’s principle number one and incredibly important.”
James Gamble, PA Consulting’s agile expert, points to the Spanish fashion company Zara as an excellent example of an organization that monitors customer preferences, tracks sales patterns and listens closely to customers needs so that it can effectively co-create looks multiples times within a season.
Ideally, your product manager will be the person who goes to the client to get feedback and unearth what features really and truly matter to them. This creates several more benefits, including:
Reduced scope creep. In agile workflows, “the number of projects that are delivered on time tends to increase, as scope creep can never extend more than a week or two,” we wrote last year. “With traditional projects, a PM might have to map out months or years of work. With agile management, they just have to map out a few weeks.”
Richer user stories. Frequent and meaningful conversations with customers will only better inform your team’s user stories. And if user stories ever become a sticking point for your team, have a look at the rubric that five-time entrepreneur Alex Cowan has created. It’s an excellent checklist of common-sense questions to grade your own user stories against.
Takeaways For Management
If you lead an agile team or an agile organization, your job is clear: Protect processes and workflow efficiencies so your team can focus on the highest-priority work only.
Here are three ways you can do that:
Protect your team’s time. An ‘agile’ team isn’t going to get very far if management doesn’t protect their time,” says Ryan Singer at Basecamp. “And if they don’t have flexibility to change requirements as they learn, late nights and late delivery are guaranteed.”
Empower your team in practice, not just in name. Michael Law, a business consultant at New Zealand Defence Force, says that many times department managers whose members comprise cross-functional teams can act as bottlenecks by “pressuring ‘their’ staff to disrupt priorities and solutions.” Make sure these managers aren’t feeling territorial or are running interference.
Subordinate projects to products. “If you are focusing on the project instead of products, you're not only missing out on a lot of value but you are restricting and not enabling, and this can lead to an ‘us and them’ mentality instead of a one company value,” Law says. “This doesn’t mean we get rid of projects; it just means we focus on products and feed projects into the product delivery, prioritised by the business owner or measured objectively. This means not feeding people to projects and disrupting natural teams.”
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